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Booze and Culture: Tailgating at Beaver Stadium

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Penn State’s ANTH 140 course covers the anthropology of drinking, using tailgating at football games as a case study.

Beaver Stadium Tailgating Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Football Tailgating season is nearly upon us. While many fans will be packing their coolers full of adult beverages and firing up their grills, one Penn State professor and his students will be breaking out their notebooks, pens, and rubber gloves in order to study the tailgating practices (and garbage) of fans around Beaver Stadium. Dr. Kirk French’s course on the Anthropology of Alcohol (aka “Booze and Culture”) gives students an opportunity to engage with a mainstay of college campus culture – anthropology – through the lens of alcohol. Or is it the other way around?

Listed as ANTH140, the Booze and Culture course offers students an introduction to the themes of anthropology, social science research, and the ethics of interviewing and interacting with research subjects. Where better to do an in-depth study of tailgating in the US than at the massive gathering outside of Beaver Stadium during a few weekends each Fall?

Professor French’s study of drinking and eating outside of a sports arena is a novel approach to anthropology in the 21st century that has some parallels in “garbological” (modern garbage + archaeological) research studying consumer behavior in the modern world. The object of the study, tailgating, is a much less recent phenomenon – arguably dating back to ancient Rome and Greece. The Tailgating Behavior Project attempts to gain an understanding of these communal events through interviews and documentation of the garbage produced in the lots around Beaver Stadium.

Lots were selected based on the parking price ($20 - $500 per game). On a few Saturdays during the 2017 football season, students interviewed tailgaters asking a series of questions such as: Why tailgate in this particular location?; How often do you tailgate?; and, How much did you spend on alcohol and food? The students also collected demographic information (age and gender). Many tailgaters in the Reserved Lots reported spending an average of $1000 per tailgate.

On game day there are interviews. Students go to assigned lots/areas based on price per parking spot. The exact parking spots where interviews are conducted are recorded with a GPS. The next morning (Sunday morning) we return to those areas to record the trash left behind.

The following morning, students volunteered to sort through the refuse and debris left by the gameday festivities to record the types of products consumed, and the quantities. This data collection would help to test the hypothesis that: the closer to the stadium the tailgaters were, the higher the quality of both the food and beverage consumed. During the study, the students found that it is 3X more likely to find evidence of craft beers in the Preferred and Reserved Lots than in the General lots. At the same time, classic American pilsners like Miller Lite, Natural Light, and Budweiser were ubiquitous. A similar pattern was observed with food, with generic brands being found everywhere, but high-end items 2X as common in Preferred and Reserved Lots.

The Booze and Culture course has an enrollment of 500 students, and is offered every semester with no pre-requisites. It’s full for the Fall, so you’ll have to wait until Spring to take the: ANTH140 – Anthropology of Alcohol (aka Booze and Culture) offered by French. So far the students have been very receptive to the anthropological study of tailgating, which is no surprise, “given the how obsessed Penn State students are with…anthropology.” Both the university and athletic department have been supportive of the Tailgating Behavior Study, and the tailgaters have showed general interest which tends to fade as the afternoon wears on. ANTH140 class plans to conduct their survey again this Fall for at least one home game, and potentially one away game at another Big Ten school.

While students are undoubtedly attracted to the course based on the subject matter, the Tailgate Behavior Study helps them develop basic interviewing skills, an appreciation for social science research, and a basic understanding of anthropological ethics that they can use and build upon throughout their academic and professional careers. Learning about drinking practices across cultures conveys the notion, “that we are much more alike than different. And the more similarities we see, the more likely we are to appreciate the differences.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Booze and Culture, and following the Tailgate Behavior Study this Fall - check out their social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There are also t-shirts, hoodies, stickers, buttons, koozies, and shot glasses with the Booze and Culture logo on one side....and “Take a Shot of Anthropology” on the other - but those items are only available to students who enroll in the course.

Booze and Culture (ANTH 140) logo